Wine of Unknown Provenance

I got a little lesson about the aging of wine recently. It happened like this: Creating my new online cellar-management account forced me to go through all those bottles downstairs and take stock. Along the way, I turned up a bottle I didn’t known I had: a 1990 Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon. Then I got a shock: The Vinfolio software declared that the wine was already three years beyond its drinking window, and presumably on a downward decline. I’d bought the bottle, I recalled, from K&L Wine Merchants in San Francisco, and it had come with a sticker that said “From a Private Collection.” I suspect that this is a kind of caveat, to the effect of, “We trust that this wine has been well cared for, but we can’t guarantee it.” All the more reason, in other words, to suspect I was looking at a spent wine.

So I opened it. The girls were at Grandma’s place, with my wife, and I was alone at home for the dinner hour, and I did what I often do in moments like that: I made myself a terrific steak with a good pan sauce and some chanterelles, and I opened a nice wine. The wine needed to breathe, of course, but once it opened up, it was sensational.

Really—I loved it, and it made me think how hard it must be to handicap the aging process of any single bottle. I guess that’s why you read about people opening a bottle a year from cases they’re keeping to age, as a way of tracking the wine’s evolution.

Anyway, I had lunch the next day with Randle Johnson, the winemaker behind the Hess Collection’s Artezin line, and when I told him this anecdote he laughed.

“I made that wine!” he declared. “You just opened a real collector’s item!”

I had no idea.

“That was about a $200 bottle!”

Yeah, well, not to me. Not sure what I paid, but there’s no way it was that much, because I’ve never spent that much on wine in my life. And in a way, I was glad I hadn’t had such thoughts in my mind; they would’ve colored the experience, for better or worse (more likely the former). But it made me wonder how many other people have had surprising experiences along these lines: wines that should’ve spoiled but instead turned out to be marvelous, or aging rules of thumb that were wildly wrong in some specific instance. Anyone?

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